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Järnefelt in a Wagnerian light

by Kimmo Korhonen

Armas Järnefelt is today principally known for two lovely miniatures: Preludi and Berceuse. Yet he was the composer of several extensive works who introduced a new, Wagnerian voice into Finnish music.

Composing popular miniatures is a dangerous business. Lollipops, as they are known in the trade, can eclipse major works or even entire catalogues. Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, for example, is now generally known for his lively piano piece Frühlingsrauschen (Rustle of Spring), which overshadows his expansive late Romantic symphonies. Similarly, Czech composer Zdenek Fibich wrote a piece called Poem that was hugely popular in its day but diverted attention from the more substantial works in his output. Even Jean Sibelius was at one point in danger of being hijacked by the popularity of Valse triste.

A similar fate threatened to befall Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958). His minor orchestral pieces Preludi (1895) and Berceuse (1904) used to be played at popular concerts all over the world and remain favourites even today. Thanks to them, he is regarded primarily as a lyrical National Romantic and a miniaturist. A connoisseur, if pressed, could perhaps name his symphonic poem Korsholma (1894), and in Finland a handful of his choral and solo songs remain in circulation.

But behind this seemingly monolithic composer profile we find an artist beset with conflicts. His orchestral music of the 1890s in particular, with a strong Wagnerian streak, was something quite new in Finnish music in its day, and as a stylistic innovator he was for a short while at the cutting edge on a par with Sibelius himself. The several extensive works in his output dispel the traditional image of a miniaturist.

The inaccurate view of Järnefelt the composer has been further distorted by the fact that Järnefelt the conductor was far better known. He created a distinguished career as chief conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm and acquired a reputation for his readings of Mozart and Wagner.

Recently, however, Järnefelt’s composer and artist profile has been substantially recast, thanks to the emergence of new letters and other source material, including previously unknown compositions. New research resulted in the publication in spring 2009 of Armas Järnefelt – kahden maan mestari (Armas Järnefelt – maestro in two countries), a compendium of articles by eight writers edited by Hannu Salmi. It paints a more comprehensive picture of Jarnefelt’s career.

Career in a nutshell

Armas Järnefelt was born into one of Finland’s leading cultural families. His brother Eero was a painter and his other brother Arvid an author. His sister Aino married Jean Sibelius. Although ranking high in society, they spoke Finnish at home rather than Swedish, which in the 19th century was still the language of the upper classes.

Järnefelt studied composition with Martin Wegelius and the piano with the celebrated Ferruccio Busoni at the Helsinki Music Institute from 1887 to 1890. He went on to study with Albert Becker in Berlin in 1890–1892, receiving the same strict stylistic schooling as Sibelius before him. Järnefelt went to Paris for the academic year 1892–1893, meeting Vincent d’Indy and Jules Massenet. He studied with Massenet, but probably not for very long.

In summer 1893, Järnefelt married singer Maikki Pakarinen, and their careers became intertwined. She performed with considerable success at German opera houses in the 1890s, for instance in Breslau (present-day Wroclaw), Berlin, Magdeburg, Düsseldorf and Bremen, and her husband was often engaged as assistant conductor. He also regularly accompanied her recitals.

In 1898, the Järnefelts settled in Viipuri, where Armas was engaged for a five-year period as conductor of the local orchestra. The next important step in his career was the organising of independent opera productions in Helsinki each spring between 1904 and 1907, focusing on a selection of Wagner operas.

As the focus of Järnefelt’s career shifted to conducting, his output as a composer began to wane. His marriage began to crumble at about the same time and was finally shattered by Maikki’s affair with composer and pianist Selim Palmgren in 1906–1907. The divorce became final in 1908, but by then Järnefelt had already moved to Stockholm to take up the post of conductor with the Royal Swedish Opera, which he held from 1907 to 1932. In spring 1910, he married Swedish opera singer Olivia (Liva) Edström. He later held engagements in Finland too, for instance as artistic director of the Finnish Opera from 1932 to 1936, but for the most of the rest of his life he lived in Sweden.

Not just another National Romantic

Järnefelt wrote the core of his orchestral output in the 1890s, a time when nationalist sentiments heavily coloured musical life in Finland. Järnefelt was not aloof from these tendencies, though he also turned to Wagner and the new German style for influences. He did not remain purely a National Romantic, even though he is often defined in those terms.

Järnefelts orchestral output in his most active period has proved more extensive than thought. It consists of a dozen works, including some extensive ones: Lyyrinen alkusoitto (Lyrical Overture, 1892); Lapsuuden ajoilta (Childhood Days, 1892), revised as Suomalainen rapsodia (Finnish Rhapsody, 1899); Serenadi (1893); Korsholma (1894); the Symphonic Fantasy (1895); Heimathklang (1895); Suite for small orchestra (1895; its opening is the famous Preludi); Suite in E flat major (1897); Pastoraali Kanteletar-sarjasta (Pastorale from the Kanteletar Suite, 1898); Juhla-alkusoitto (Festive Overture, 1902); and Berceuse (1904).

The six-movement Serenadi is the longest of these, clocking in at 30 minutes, while the most extensive single-movement work is the Symphonic Fantasy at more than 20 minutes. This is a remarkable body of orchestral compositions by Finnish standards, and until very recently it was only partly known: the Suite in E flat major, for example, is not mentioned in any earlier reference work.

Throughout his active period as a composer, Järnefelt balanced between national and international impulses. National Romanticism is the most conspicuously present in Lapsuuden ajoilta, a rhapsody on folk tunes which he later revised and re-titled Suomalainen rapsodia. In Lyyrinen alkusoitto and Serenadi, on the other hand, he merged elements of Central European Romanticism with National Romanticism.

Järnefelt’s early works were favourably received, and he scored his greatest triumph with the tone poem Korsholma. Its programme was firmly embedded in Finnish nationalist aspirations and the definition of a national identity, which may have been part of the reason for its success. It also serves as a compendium of Järnefelt’s stylistic aspirations, since it includes National Romantic and late Romantic elements and also the then new Wagnerian influences.

Symphonic Fantasy panned

Korsholma has so far been regarded as Järnefelt’s principal orchestral work, but in fact the Symphonic Fantasy deserves this accolade. Its genesis may be linked to the abortive project to write a symphony with which Järnefelt was struggling in spring 1894. Material intended for the symphony may have ended up both in the Symphonic Fantasy and in Korsholma.

However, the premiere of the Symphonic Fantasy in March 1895 was roundly trounced. Karl Flodin, the most respected critic in the land, wrote: “We must sincerely admit that the Fantasy remained an insoluble mystery to us. Beyond its many new and genuinely interesting instrumental combinations and modulations, the Fantasy provided very few anchor points for the listener and came across as an interminable grey cloudy day with occasional flashes of brightness.” Karl Fredrik Wasenius, another important critic, described the work as “muddy musical philosophising”.

It seems evident that the reason for such aversion was the Wagnerian style of the work, which in Finland was considered quite too modern and un-national. The influence of Wagner had already been apparent in Korsholma but now took centre stage. The complex textures of the Fantasy also betray the influence of Richard Strauss.

Conducting over composing

The Symphonic Fantasy proved to be a turning point in Järnefelt’s career as a composer. He simplified his style, though he did not completely abandon his modern influences. Heimathklang still bears features of the new German school, and Pastoraali is a lovely merger of National Romanticism and Straussian elements.

The failure of the Symphonic Fantasy – it was never performed again in his lifetime – most probably contributed to Järnefelt dedicating his energies to conducting. As early as in autumn 1895 he wrote to his father: “I believe that I shall become a conductor.”

Once Järnefelt’s conducting career took off, composition was inevitably relegated to a secondary role. He stopped writing orchestral music at the age of only 30 or so, at which point composers are usually only just properly maturing. He later cited the overwhelming mastery of Sibelius as the reason for abandoning composition, but this was by no means the only reason, and perhaps not even the most important one.

Besides, Järnefelt never completely gave up composing. He continued to write solo songs in the later stages of his career, and occasional music for a number of stage plays. He even considered writing an opera at some point. Jarnefelt also entered the annals of Finnish cinema by writing the music for the film Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta (Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1919) directed by Mauritz Stiller, a masterful Finnish-born film director who created his career in Sweden. This was the first full-length film in the Nordic countries to have original music written for it.

From the 1920s onwards, Järnefelt’s composition catalogue was mainly augmented by festive cantatas commissioned by various Finnish organisations and institutions. He wrote 13 of these cantatas in all, and he even declared one of them, Isänmaan kasvot (The Face of the Fatherland, 1925), his best work ever. It is, however, more conventional in style and expression than his best orchestral works of the 1890s: generally, the festive cantatas show a resigned composer who has quietly abandoned his youthful experimentations.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: A pencil drawing of Armas Järnefelt by his brother Eero Järnefelt. Finnish National Gallery.

This article was first published in FMQ 1/2010.

See also: Complete performances of Armas Järnefelt – a stunning CD box set